Saturday, October 29, 2005

Show Your Work

In seeking support, I have a concept I’ve often shared which has made a profound difference in how enthusiastically the support has been delivered. I call it showing your work.

When we were in school taking a math test, the teacher would say, “Show your work.” We’d lose points for not showing our work, how we arrived at our answer, even if our answer were correct.

The reason for this was that the teacher was more interested in our method for solving the problem than in the answer itself. We might have arrived at the right answer for the wrong reason, and there’d be no assurance that, in the future, we’d arrive at the proper solution to similar problems. Showing our work reassured the teacher. It showed him or her that we understood how to reason, and showed that, even if we made an error in calculation, resulting in a wrong answer, we could be relied on to think clearly and logically. That was the important thing. Nobody really cares how far down the track two trains will pass if one leaves New York at 9am traveling at 67 mph and the other one leaves Chicago at 10am traveling at 74 mph, but they do care that we can use our reasoning powers to solve problems in life.

It’s like the story of the guy who says to his friend, “I wish I had the money to buy an elephant.” His friend asks, “What would you want with an elephant?” He replies, “Nothing. I don’t want an elephant. I just wish I had the money.”

Showing your work, as it pertains to eliciting support, means letting people in on your thinking process. There’s a big difference in terms of the support you’ll receive between saying to someone, “I need to borrow a thousand dollars for a trip to Guatemala.” and saying, “One of the things that will feel rewarding to me is working in a small, indigenous village in Central America, helping the natives with their health and sanitation needs. A lot of people are concerned about safety in that part of the world, so I’ve done some research online to find out where the safest places are that are still in need of help. Guatemala has many villages crying out for help, and it’s completely safe. My plan is to spend six months working on my language skills and then to fly into Guatemala City where I’ll be met and taken to the town of Chichicastenango to work for six months. The only obstacle I’m facing now is finding the funds for my flight….”

Get the idea? In the second scenario, you’re showing your work. Even if they disagree with your conclusion, they can’t fault your thinking, and they may invest in you on the merits of your preparedness alone.

It’s likely that when you show your work, people will ask you more questions. Don’t be annoyed by that. Think of their questions as an opportunity to further clarify your thinking, justify your choice, or highlight areas of research you still need to do. Even if the questioner brings to light insurmountable problems with your plan, that’s a good thing. If the plan is unworkable, you’d rather know it now before going too deeply into its execution.

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